In an ideal world, all filmmakers would be able to budget for a talented and experienced sound editor and mixer. Anyone who has made a short or feature film has learned the importance of clean sound, sometimes the hard way—it isn’t only achieved through capturing good production audio. The post-production sound process is essential to delivering a polished film.
So what happens when your budget doesn’t allow you to acquire a sound editor or mixer? I have been in this position many times and resorted to hiring someone with little or no experience. Unfortunately, the desire alone to do a job well isn’t always enough; in a few instances, the finished films suffered from these noble efforts. However, on my most recent feature film Son of a Gun, I was placed in this same position and decided to try something new: I would sound edit and mix the film myself!
This decision was the equivalent of throwing myself into the deep end of a pool, the “sink or swim” method. But with a deadline approaching and few other options, I dove into sound editing and mixing for the first time.
On the other end of this process now, I’m no expert, but I understand sound techniques for film more than ever. If nothing else, the experience helped me to better communicate with the sound editors and mixers I might hire. Furthermore, it showed me that this once daunting task isn’t as scary as it seems.
I would like to share a few tips for any filmmaker who might be faced with the same situation. For filmmakers using Adobe products, this is basic advice that might at least get you going in the right direction.
1. Delete the Sound You Don’t Need
Listening to the audio from Son of a Gun in the completed rough cut, I realized it was exactly that: rough, very rough. I hired someone to clean up the first twenty minutes from the movie and after a couple weeks of work, it just wasn’t improving enough. It was time to get my own hands dirty.
Although I was overwhelmed at first, I soon realized one of the main issues: much of the sound was unnecessary. Depending on how your production audio is recorded, you might have a boom microphone track, and one or multiple lavalier tracks. Your editor might not have the time to go through these variations as he or she cuts the scenes. Again, much of what remains may be unneeded.
For instance, if you have a scene with three tracks for three different actors speaking, you may need to go in and clear out the other two tracks while the first is featured. If it’s a close up shot, you don’t need those extra recordings. At other times, you may want to delete all the lavalier tracks and use only the audio from the boom microphone. Listen to each track, determine the strengths and weaknesses, choose the best one for each line or moment, and proceed from there.
Once I cleaned out the extra audio, the film already sounded much better. In some scenes, I cut out everything but the individual lines of dialog. Whereas my Adobe sequence had once looked full, it was now just a series of little clips. From there, I could really begin to not only mix but also design the audio in a controlled way, which relates to my next tip.
2. Ambience is Your Life Saver
The ambient sound in your scene might be air conditioning or traffic; it might be a crowd of people in a restaurant or the gun shots in a battle scene. Regardless, this background audio is not only essential to the completion of your scene but can be used as a special tool for improving your sound mix.
Once you have cleaned up your sequence, there will inevitably be gaps to fill. At other times, inconsistencies in the different tracks will require a smooth transition. In my first endeavor to sound edit and mix a feature film, I learned very quickly the importance of ambience.
For Son of a Gun, there were several instances of bad audio I needed to replace and even more times when tracks did not blend well together. Because the film is set during the Civil War, unfortunately I could not use a generic air conditioning ambience—but you may want to try that first if it fits your film. I also could not use traffic. In fact, during some of our scenes, we could not avoid capturing the sound of modern cars moving outside the windows of our locations, so that also needed to be resolved.
How did I approach these issues? I turned to sites such as freesound.org and other online resources to find multiple ambient tracks and sound effects. I placed the sound of horses galloping by, church bells, and a train whistle in the scene. I found cafe ambience that fit the time period. All of these allowed me to cover up changes in room tone, gaps in audio, and other unattractive elements in the sound mix.
From that point forward, I made finding the right ambience a priority when approaching any scene.
3. Noise Print and Noise Reduction
On a more technical note, this process opened my eyes (and ears) to the amazing tools in Adobe Audition. A new program can be daunting to approach, but with a couple tutorial videos online, I was able to make great use of Audition.
The most valuable tool in this program and the one I used the most is noise reduction. After sending an audio file from Premiere to Audition, I would start by capturing a “Noise Print.” This is a small selection (it could be just a couple seconds) of the noise you want to remove or reduce from the clip. There are several helpful guides that walk you step-by-step through doing this.
Once you have a noise print, you can use the Noise Reduction tool, which incorporates that sample you just made to clean up the clip. It’s amazing how quickly the noise can be reduced or completely eliminated. The Noise Reduction tool gives you a wide range of options to choose from without overcomplicating the process. Keep in mind that if you reduce the audio too much, some sounds and especially dialog will begin to come off as unnatural. Some of my colleagues who reviewed the first sound mix for Son of a Gun observed that I’d taken the reduction process too far and that some speakers sounded “robotic.” I adjusted this and found a happy medium going forward.
Another quick tip: I learned immediately to give myself more room on the tail end of my audio clip because when you send audio back to Premiere, you need enough flexibility to crossfade or dissolve the track with others.
Many filmmakers are unaware of how simple it is to do basic sound editing and mixing. What I once imagined taking weeks took only hours, and the sound for my film improved tremendously. If nothing else, it will give you insight into the process so that you can better collaborate with a sound editor/mixer when you are able to hire one.